Virginians on Olympus. II. Robert E. Lee: Savior of the Lost Cause
Marshall W. Fishwick

Note: The following is taken from the April 1950 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 58), pp. 163–80.

The memorial of the Southern people to General Robert E. Lee,
erected in Richmond, the heart of the Confederacy


II. Robert E. Lee: Savior of the Lost Cause

Ask me, if you please, to paint
Storm winds upon the sea;
Tell me weigh great Cheops,
Set volcanic forces free;
But bid me not, my countrymen,
To picture Robert Lee!
 “Memorial Ode,” by James Barron Hope

ON October 15, 1870, the earthly remains of a soldier who, after surrendering his army, had devoted his last years to reviving a small Virginia college, were interred in the vault of its chapel which he had been instrumental in building. Clad in plain dark civilian clothes, the tired and greyed warrior in the coffin scarcely seemed a figure who had inspired great loyalty in his own ranks, and even greater fear in his enemy’s. His former soldiers who were there to honor him had only a ribbon in their coat lapels to distinguish them; no flags flew in the procession, and none adorned the coffin. The keynote of the funeral, as it was of the man who was being laid to rest, was simplicity.

On the surface Robert Edward Lee’s career would seem to have culminated in failure. A professional soldier by training and choice, he was forced to leave the field forever when he surrenderedh is ragged army at Appomattox in 1865. With the surrender vanished all hope of the Confederate States of America, for which he had sacrificed everything. Robert E. Lee died disenfranchised, a prisoner on parole.

During the closing years of his life Lee had had ample reason to conclude that he was still bitterly hated as an archtraitor by many Americans. The Radical Republican press had denounced him roundly, as had a number of Republican politicians on the floor of Congress.1 Stories such as that in the March 31, 1866, issue of the Baltimore American—containing a purported interview with an ex-slave of General Lee and stressing Lee’s cruelty and callousness—were not uncommon; but even the often-condemned Confederate leader must have been taken aback when he read a clipping from the April 21, 1868, number of the Weekly Morning Herald which N. W. Hibbard mailed him from Pulaski, Kentucky:

Facts are being developed which prove that Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, of which General R. E. Lee is president, is one of the most violent rebel institutions in the land—a school for the propagation of hatred to the government and its loyal people. From the principal down to the humblest tutor, the faculty are thoroughly rebel.2

If the flesh-and-blood Lee was disliked by some of his contemporaries, he was idolized by others; like General “Stonewall” Jackson, many of his officers would have been content to follow him into battle blindfolded. A young soldier who followed Lee all the way to Appomattox testified poignantly to the truth that General Lee came to mean more to his soldiers than the Confederacy, as General Washington had been dearer to his men than American Independence. Just before Lee’s surrender, he was told:

You are the country to these men. They have fought for you. They have shivered through a long winter for you. Without pay or clothes, or care of any sort, their devotion to you and faith in you have been the only things which have held this army together.3

Lee was as admired for his humility and earnestness in peace as he had been for his brilliance and daring in war. To many of his contemporaries the sacrosanct Lee was the solitary, noble figure in his twilight years who, clad in a grey uniform from which all the Confederate buttons had been removed, made his way on horseback to a ravaged Virginia village to begin life anew. The impact of his death, a few years later, can be documented in a score of places by one who studies the newspapers and journals of the period. At Lee’s own college the staff of the student publication, the Southern Collegian, prepared this statement:

We stop our paper from going to press in order to make the saddest announcement which our pen ever wrote: our honored and loved president is no more . . . He died as he lived, calmly and quietly, in the full assurance of the Christian’s faith.

The whole South was plunged into mourning, and many a sermon preached the next Sunday centered about the life and work of Lee. Nor were all the eulogies confined to the South; papers north of the Potomac and even a cross the Atlantic, eulogized him in their editorials.4 Southern orators and politicians out did themselves in describing the impact of the news of Lee’s passing on the South, as this excerpt from an address by James P. Holcombe indicates:

For nearly two years premonitions of declining health had saddened our hearts, but no warning could prepare us for the shock of his death. When the tidings flashed along the wires that Lee too had crossed over the river, and was resting with Jackson under the shade of the trees, there went up from earth the wailing voice of millions, who mourned the loss of father, friend, exemplar, guide.5

When the General passed away on October 12, 1870, no time was lost informing the Lee Memorial Association: it was organized the day he was buried. Charter members were a group of ex-Confederate soldiers who felt that “no duty is more sacred than that of making manifest the love of his countrymen for the character and genius of Robert E. Lee.” The remarkable hold which Lee has on the Southern mind was first made manifest by his fellow soldiers. For a generation former Confederate fighters dealt with their General as if he were their exclusive property, controlling the Lee Memorial Association, fighting his battles in the public presses, and stressing his military prowess over all other accomplishments. The memorial statue erected to Lee in Lexington during this period showed Lee lying asleep on the field of battle.

The attitude of Southern women in the last quarter of the nineteenth century towards Lee was quite similar to that of the men. Within a year of his death a group of his feminine admirers met in a Richmond parlor and formed the Ladies’ Lee Monument Association. So successful was their work in the following years that by 1887 they were able to lay in Richmond the cornerstone of a sixty foot, $65,000 statue of the General bedecked in sash and cavalry sword, mounted on his charger, Traveller.

The statue, executed by the French sculptor Jean Mercié, reached Richmond in May, 890, packed in three boxes. These were placed on three wagons, and dragged to the spot where they were to be assembled by human hands: the first by ex-Confederate soldiers, the second by townsmen, and the third by women and girls. (Sections of the ropes used are still prized by families in Richmond.) The unveiling, which occurred on May 29, 1890, was an important moment in the history of the Lee symbol in America. The most notable Confederates who were still alive were present for the event (among them Generals Joseph E. Johnston, James Longstreet, Wade Hampton, John B. Gordon, E. P. Alexander, and Jubal A. Early); so were Mrs. Thomas J. Jackson and Mrs. George E. Pickett, as well as three of Lee’s children. Past the statue of the Confederate Leader marched the army of Confederate veterans, a middle-aged army now, in what was to be its last full-fledged military reunion. It was the high-water mark of the militaristic phase of the Lee cult in both Virginia and the Southern states, and indicates well how effective had been the flood of military essays and studies of Lee which had been written in the South. The earliest of these had appeared only a few months after the surrender, from the presses of the Richardson Co. in New York, entitled Southern Generals, Who They Are, and What They Have Done. The northern press did not list the author, who was Captain William Parker Snow, C.S.A., until a second edition, called Southern Generals, Their Lives and Campaigns appeared a year later. The first full-length biographical study of General Lee, the work of James D. McCabe, Jr., drew not only from newspaper stories and reports, but reminiscences of the author. The 716 page book was called Life and Campaigns of General Robert E. Lee; despite its many inaccuracies, it has a vividness and freshness which makes it an important reference work. More valuable, however, was another 1867 biography, Edward Albert Pollard’s Lee and His Lieutenants, reissued three years later by the same New York publisher as The Early Life, Campaigns, and Public Services of Robert E. Lee.

The poets, as well as the biographers, were captivated by Lee’s military statue and genius even before his death in 1870. Hardly had the guns stopped booming before Emily V. Mason had edited a post-war anthology called Southern Poems of the War, which contained a number of Lee poems, including the famous “Sword of Robert Lee” by Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838–1886).

Although Lee’s project of recording himself the history of his campaigns was abandoned in 1866,6 a number of his former associates, such as John William Jones, Jubal A. Early, and Walter H. Taylor produced lengthy reminiscences in the decade after Lee’s death. In 1874 a French biography was published in Paris by General Lee’s nephew, Edward Lee Childe, which greatly emphasized Lee’s military prowess. Such books as these, being scholarly and detailed in nature, lacked popular appeal, so that a number of simplified or “popularized” biographies came into vogue during the same decade. The earliest one seems to have been the work of Judith White McGuire, whose General Robert E. Lee, the Christian Soldier was sponsored by the City Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church of Richmond, Virginia.7 Emily V. Mason’s Popular Life of General Robert Edward Lee (1872) was dedicated to Mrs. Lee, and depicted a very romanticized hero, just as did James D. Lynch’s Robert E. Lee, a 31-page poem which came out in the middle of the decade. In France, Madame B. Boissonnas’ Un Vaincu struck the “Lost Leader” chord, and McCabe and Pollard’s volumes were both reissued to meet a growing interest in the savior of the Lost Cause.

The writer in this decade who did most towards establishing the prototype of Lee the soldier, and making this prototype the property of his native Virginia and the South, we have yet to mention. This was John Esten Cooke (1830–1886), soldier, patriot, and novelist. During his months of vigorous campaigning in the Civil War, Cooke was able to write and publish a life of Stonewall Jackson.8 Of the biography, which was begun at Stuart’s camp east of Orange Court House in May, 1863, Cooke said:

It was written in a tent, on the outpost; the enemy yonder, almost in view—but with Jackson, alas! no longer in front. The real historian of his life will write in a quiet study, in the tranquil days of peace with no enemy, let us hope, anywhere in view, on all the vast horizon of the Confederate States.9

Not Jackson, but Lee, was to hold the supreme place in Cooke’s mind when the War ended. By 1868 he had completed a novel on which he had “worked harder than on any other book I have ever written,” called Mohun; or The Last Days of Lee and His Paladins. This popular success was followed by a Life of General Robert E. Lee, which he began the month after Lee’s death, and finished in January 1871. Even before the General’s death Cooke considered writing such a biography, and had even written Lee about the project. The biography he produced was a work of love, and its 577 pages gave the most coherent picture and summary of Lee’s military career that was to be done in Cooke’s generation.10

Another little-known Virginian, Talbott Sweeney, also made an important contribution to Lee literature in the last quarter of the century. A native of Williamsburg, Sweeney took his Bachelor of Arts degree at the College of William and Mary, and entered the law school there in 1849, at the age of 19. His major undergraduate departments were chemistry and American history. At the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted as Fifth Sergeant, Company C, Thirty-Second Regiment, Virginia Infantry, Williamsburg Guards, and later on he served as head of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in Williamsburg, which was deprecated by the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1862. In his sixtieth year he resolved to vindicate General Lee, by showing that on Northern as well as Southern principles Lee’s action in joining the forces of the Confederacy was completely justified.

Sweeney’s vindication was based on a rather simple premise, but studded with unfounded generalizations and pompous phraseology. If by following the dictates of his conscience Robert E. Lee was a traitor, then so were Oliver Cromwell, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. If his interpretation of his loyalty to the Constitution was erroneous, then so were those of the patriots who wrote it and the legislatures which adopted it. By reproducing excerpts from the Constitutional Conventions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia, he makes a strong case for his contention, and concludes with this highly rhetorical speech to the former Confederate chieftain:

The shades of your patriotic and distinguished Revolutionary ancestors appeared to your vision and pointed out to you the only path which you could and should tread . . . But what shall be said of the reputation of Robert Edward Lee? Steeped in the red and black of Treason and Perjury, as his enemies declare? What monstrous and wicked absurdity and stupidity to think it!

No! No! The brightness of the glory of Richard Henry Lee, in the character and fame of Robert Edward Lee, is awakened as if with accumulated lustre, shedding a splendor over the name of Lee unknown in any previous age!11

During the 1890’s the story of the South’s most beloved leader began to reach a larger and larger American reading public, because it was presented through three important new channels. Lee’s first appearance in an encyclopedia occurred in 1890, when Nathan Burnham Webster copyrighted a seven-page sketch for the J. B. Lippincott Company’s Chamber’s Encyclopedia. Fitzhugh Lee’s biography of his uncle, published in D. Appleton Company’s “Great Commanders” series (1894) was the first such volume to be included in a “great men” collection. Five years later William P. Trent’s Robert E. Lee appeared in the “Beacon Biographies” series; during the same year George Marouby’s Robert Lee, Generalissime des États Confederes du Sud was published in Paris, as a volume in the Feron-Vrau “Les Contemporans” series.

More significant were the books written for juveniles; whenever a hero reaches a position that calls for his life story being presented to children, he has achieved distinction. G. A. Henty’s With Lee in Virginia (New York, Williams Press, 1890) was received with enthusiasm, and reissued twice by other publishers in the next decade. Mary L. Williamson’s The Life of General Robert E. Lee, for Children, in Easy Words, was published in 1895, and widely circulated throughout the South. New editions appeared in 1918 and 1936. John Esten Cooke’s biography was made available in a new edition in 1899. Robert E. Lee was plainly moving to the level of a national, rather than a sectional, hero. He was supplanting Washington in many a Southern heart.

In a figurative sense, we can even date Lee’s ascendancy: 1907, the centennial year of his birth, and the occasion of Lee memorial services and celebrations throughout the South. As one of the most devoted students of Lee’s reputation and bibliography has said,

The Lee centennial stirred the imagination of the South. A new culture had by this time really begun to flourish. With increased physical comfort, some of the old bitterness against the North died out, and a measure of intellectual reciprocity took place. Provincialism, in the North and South, was on the wane, and the Lee motif was rising.12

Confederate veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored 1907 programs in every state of the former Confederacy, and a New Orleans Committee of Confederate Associations published a brochure called Suggestions for the Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of General Robert E. Lee. On the floor of Congress D. P. Halsey proposed that a statue of Lee be placed in Statuary Hall of the national Capitol, and a bill authorizing such a statue was later passed.

The most important speech of the Centennial year was not made in Washington, but in the little town of Lexington, where Lee had spent the last five years of his life; the historian who delivered it was not a Southerner, but a Yankee soldier who had faced Lee’s soldiers at Gettysburg. He was the brother, moreover, of Henry Adams, who had opened the attack on the integrity of another great Virginia soldier-hero, Captain John Smith.

Charles Francis Adams was a member of the only American family whose continuous leadership can be said to rival that of Lee’s—a fact which must be kept in mind when his place in the Lee story is related. Like Lee, he was trained to think and act in terms of family; and like Lee, he was to know defeat more often than triumph before his life was ended. Born in 1835, son of the Union Civil War Ambassador to Great Britain, Adams entered the Union Army as a first lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Fighting throughout the war with distinction, he was released to civilian life in 1865, a physical wreck, with the brevets of a brigadier general. One would hardly have expected him to call the country’s attention to a new facet of the genius of the leader of the Rebellion.

Yet, on October 13, 1901, Charles Francis Adams read a paper to the American Antiquarian Society, called, “The Confederacy and the Transvaal: A People’s Obligation to Robert E. Lee.” By prohibiting guerilla warfare and preaching reconciliation, he argues, Lee saved the North and South untold misery. The whole personality of Lee caught his imagination, and during the next year he prepared three papers which must have shocked his Massachusetts compatriots: “Shall Cromwell Have a Statue?” in which he pleads for a statue of Lee in Washington; “Lee at Appomattox,” a character study; and “The Constitutional Ethics of Secession.” If Fitzhugh Lee’s acceptance of a major-generalship in the United States Army during the Spanish American War helped to vindicate the South to the North, these papers by an Adams of Massachusetts helped reconcile the North to the South.

Adams was quite aware that the public attitude towards Lee was changing very rapidly and commented on this fact in the preface to a collection of his addresses published in 1903 as Lee at Appomattox and Other Papers. The criticism which his speeches defending Lee had drawn forth in his own section, Adams noted, “was in no case couched in the declamatory, patriotic strain, at once injured, indignant, and denunciatory or vituperative, which would no less assuredly than naturally have marked it thirty years ago.”

On the grounds of his papers and speeches Charles Francis Adams was invited by George H. Denny, president of Washington and Lee University, to make the Lee Centennial address on January 19, 1907. A great crowd, including many who had studied under Lee at Washington College, gathered at Lexington, to hear a former enemy of Lee praise him. “The situation,” as Adams pointed out to his audience, “is thus to a degree dramatic.”

In a carefully phrased speech, which is probably the culmination in Lee oratory, Adams placed Lee among the greatest Americans, not for his triumphs in the battlefield, but the triumphs in his own mind. If Lee-the-soldier had been unable to save the Confederacy, Lee-the-citizen had helped save the United States: and “to overestimate this service would be difficult.” The visitor closed his speech with a quotation from Carlyle: “Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men? Whom do you wish to resemble? Him you set on a high column, that all men looking at it may be continually appraised of the duty you expect from them.” “As he spoke,” Douglas Southall Freeman has added, “his heart-stirred audience was looking past him—to the monument of Lee.”

That seventy-five Lee items appeared in the Centennial decade, gives some indication of the ascendancy of the Lee symbol in the years before World War I. The English press, anticipating the Centennial celebration, reprinted an earlier laudatory account of Lee by General Viscount Wolseley in three English journals.13 In this country a single issue of The Outlook (December, 1906) contained five articles and a poem about General Lee. The Reverend John William Jones’ Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man, which included a large number of Lee letters, was published in Washington in 1906, and was well received. Five new volumes were added to that important barometer of popular interest, juvenilia literature: Cyrus T. Brady’s The Patriots, E. G. Littlejohn’s Robert E. Lee, Hill’s Robert E. Lee, A Story and a Play, Bradley Gilman’s R. E. Lee, and James Barnes’ The Son of Light Horse Harry.

More important than these were the Lee items by a Massachusetts biographer, Gamaliel Bradford, and a Virginia novelist, Thomas Nelson Page. Popularizer of a type of writing known as “psychography,” Bradford (1863–1932) scored his greatest triumph with Lee, the American in 1912. Taking as his chief task the extraction of the essential and unique elements of a man’s personality, and the delineation of a portrait as true to the subject’s spiritual shape as in an artist’s portrait of the model’s physical structure, Bradford made the psychographic method as popular in America as did Lytton Strachey in England. But the most interesting thing about the book is that, in title and spirit, it indicates that Lee was no longer a sectional hero. No Southerner could have handled his subject with greater sympathy and warmth than did Bradford. The people who knew Lee well considered him, as Nicholson has pointed out, “a man of infinite dignity and almost ascetic self-effacement . . . That Bradford, alien from Lee in training and experience, could grasp all this and make it speak through his book is an accomplishment hard to belittle.”14

If there were a more reverential treatment accorded to the General in this decade, it would be encompassed in Thomas Nelson Page’s 1909 Robert E. Lee, the Southerner, enlarged and reissued in 1911 as Robert E. Lee, Man and Soldier.15 Born at “Oakland” in Hanover County, Virginia, son of an artillery officer in the Army of Northern Virginia and great-grandson of a state governor, Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) heard about the exploits of Lee throughout his youth. In 1869 he entered Washington College, during the presidency of General Lee, and came into personal contact with the hero. After receiving his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1874, he began to practice law in Richmond.

The old régime in the South received its most colorful portrayal in the fiction that came from Page’s pen in the next thirty years, beginning with In Ole Virginia (1887). Although the work owes something to Irwin Russell and Joel Chandler Harris, it pioneers in the use of negro dialect and Southern local color. The great interest in Western local color began to shift to the South, and Page commented with justice that, “After less than a generation the old South has become among friends and enemies the recognized field of romance.” His own Two Little Confederates (1888), Among the Camps; or, Young People’s Stories of the War (1891), On Newfound River (1891), The Burial of the Guns (1894), The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock (1897), and Two Prisoners (1898) helped greatly to make the statement true.16

When, after the turn of the century, Page decided to write a biography of Robert E. Lee, he did so (in his own words) “in obedience to a feeling that as the son of a Confederate soldier, as a Southerner, as an American, I owe it to my country.” At the close of his 700-page biography which appeared in 1911, Page attaches a personal statement of what his study has meant to him; it tells us a great deal not only about the author, but of the growing cult of Lee in the early twentieth century:

As I have immersed myself in the subject of this greatest captain and noble gentleman, there has appeared to troop before me from a misty past that army on whose imperishable deeds is founded the fame of possibly the greatest soldier of our race—that army of the South composed not only of the best that the South had, but well-nigh of all she had . . .

Lee has a nobler monument than can be built of marble or brass. His monument is the adoration of the South; his shrine is in every Southern heart.

In the 1920’S such distinguished people as Woodrow Wilson, Edgar Lee Masters, John Drinkwater, Mary Johnston, Ellen Glasgow, and Stephen Vincent Benet contributed to the steadily expanding corpus of Lee works. Wilson’s short Robert E. Lee, An Interpretation (Chapel Hill, 1924) is a sensitive and intelligent study, stressing Lee’s attachment to his local environment: “He knew that a man’s nearest attachments are his best attachments, and his nearest duties his imperative duties. He had been born in Virginia, he was Virginia’s.” Drinkwater’s Robert E. Lee, a drama published by Sidgwick and Jackson in England in 1923, and by Houghton Mifflin in Boston a year later, depicted Lee as a sort of latter-day English country aristocrat. Johnston approached Virginia’s paragon, who exibited “sunny shreds of the Golden Age,” with awe. He is the impeccable hero of Glasgow’s The Battleground, a man so great as to hold a whole army together by his personality. The Lee passages in Benet’s John Brown’s Body are certainly the best poetical description of the Virginian yet done.

For Benet, Lee is not a man of repose, but of action; not a man of ice, but of fire, who “gripped life like a wrestler with a bull, impetuously.” At the end of a long description of Lee in Book Four of John Brown’s Body he writes:

His heart was not a stone but trumpet-shaped
And a long challenge blew an anger through it
That was more dread for being musical
First, last, and to the end. Again he said
A curious thing to life.
“I’m always wanting something.”

In Book Eight, Benet describes the last awful days before the Confederate surrender, and has one of the Southern soldiers say of General Lee:

I never knew a man could look so still
And yet look so alive in his repose.
It doesn’t seem as if a cause could lose
When it’s believed in by a man like that . . .
But there is nothing ruined in his face,
And nothing beaten in those steady eyes.
If he’s grown old, it isn’t like a man,
It’s more the way a river might grow old.

The type of awe which Benet expresses for Lee has been shared by many another Southerner in the twentieth century. Not only in written accounts, but in practical actions, can this be illustrated. Consider, for example, the controversy which arose over altering the chapel which General Lee had built on the Washington and Lee University campus. After World War I, Henry Louis Smith, the University’s president, planned to beautify and enlarge the chapel. The trustees, leading alumni, and the national council of the United Daughters of the Confederacy agreed to endorse and support President Smith’s plan. What he failed to take into account was the local feeling and spirit of Virginia. Before he had a chance to sanction the disturbance of a single brick in the tiny Chapel, he had good reason to know of its existence.

When plans for alterations were announced, the state patriotic and historic groups swung into action. Determined spokesmen from Lexington, Lynchburg, Richmond, and Fredericksburg led the attack; the president of the U.D.C. in the last-named town warned Smith that “the tide of patriotic sentiment is steadily rising higher,” and she was correct. These determined ladies rallied the living Lees to their cause. A letter from Mrs. Robert E. Lee (the General’s daughter-in-law) to Mrs. Thomas S. Burwell indicates that such strategy was successful:

I thoroughly approved of your protest against the desecration proposed, of changing or moving a single “stick, stock, or stone” in the Lee Chapel. My husband’s position is an uncomfortable one for a man of fine sensibilities . . .18

By 1923 the saving of the Chapel had become a cause célèbre in the Old Dominion. In the April 12, 1923, number of the Rockbridge County News Marietta M. Andrews published a resounding article called, “Lee Chapel—Add to it Nothing More.” It contained a particular emotional appeal for mothers:

A criticism of the architecture of the Lee Chapel at Lexington has just about as much point as a criticism made to a man upon his mother’s countenance . . . To change it would be a sacrilege, a robbery of dear inspirations. So, leave this dear, modest, honored little Chapel all untouched!

When even Woodrow Wilson wrote a letter of censure to the man who would dare altar the shrine, President Smith was ready to abandon his fond dream. He had been taught, in none too gentle a fashion, that a mere mortal cannot hope to tamper with a rising hero-symbol and come out triumphant. The Lee Chapel stands today just as the General built it. His office has not been rearranged since he left it to climb the hill to the President’s house and die. He would surely recognize his chapel were he to return today. He might be a little startled, however, to learn that it has become the Shrine of the South.

Two important 1927 historical interpretations showed plainly that Lee was firmly entrenched as an American, as well as Southern, culture hero. Edward H. Grigg’s American Statesman, An Interpretation of Our History and Heritage, dealt with the “six outstanding leaders of our history,” and added to the names of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln that of Robert E. Lee. In his Lincoln or Lee? William E. Dodd not only suggested that Lee represented best the aristocratic principle in all American history, but even suggested that the whole nation would come to venerate him as did the South. “Is it Lincoln or Lee,” he asks at the end of his treatise, “the country honors most today, honors most by imitating?”

Yet the historian who has done most to elevate Lee’s standing, and whose biography of Lee best deserves the description monumental, is Douglas Southall Freeman. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 16, 1886, educated in Richmond College and the Johns Hopkins University, Freeman became a journalist after receiving his doctorate in 1908. The work of this editor, whose history-writing was, until his retirement from the Richmond News Leader, an avocation, has grown steadily since his first monograph appeared in 1912; and in 1935 his R. E. Lee was awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography.

In evaluating his achievement, one should remember that he was fighting against the prevailing historical vogue of “debunking” during the most creative years of his career. For almost a decade the debunkers dominated the scene, and their overthrow was at least partially owing to Freeman’s opposition. In 1934 he dealt two telling blows at the specialists in smartness and light—his own dignified, almost definitive, life of Lee, and the Moore lectures at Dartmouth. In the foreword to R. E. Lee he struck out with these words:

His quiet life, as engineer and educator, did not lend itself to the “new” biography which is already becoming conventionalized. Neither was there any occasion to attempt an “interpretation” of a man who was his own clear interpreter.20

The Moore lectures attack the “mediocre debunkers” and their “psychography,” and single out Lytton Strachey for special criticism. Of his own theory of writing history, Mr. Freeman writes:

My own theory of historical presentation is the result of many reflections and the study of some of our famous models. Perhaps I owe most to Boswell’s life of Johnson.21

Embodying a carefully formulated hero theory of history and nineteen years of research, the four Lee volumes won immediate acclaim throughout the nation. Along with Freeman’s work on a Calendar of Confederate Papers (1908); Lee’s Dispatches (1915);22 and the three volumes on Lee’s Lieutenants, A Study in Command (1942–1949), they established him as the leading authority on Virginia’s great general. “He has,” Stephen Vincent
Benet said, “revivified for us, lastingly and surely, one of the largest figures in our national past,”23 and by so doing has become the most admired biographer ever to appear in the Old Dominion.

In the middle of the Depression devotees of Lee somehow managed to collect $250,000 to purchase Stratford, ancestral home of the Lees, and set it apart as a public shrine. When it was dedicated by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation on October 12, 1935, Douglas Southall Freeman was asked to give the key address. To many in the audience, he was identified with the Lee symbol which he had helped create, by writing the most authoritative and exhaustive biography of the savior of the Lost Cause.

That the calibre of literature on Lee has improved greatly in this generation can be shown by adding to the list of books by Griggs, Dodd, and Freeman those of Burton J. Hendrick, Francis P. Gaines, Robert W. Winston, Hamilton J. Eckenrode, Donald Davidson, Roy Meredith, and Stanley F. Horn.24 Lee’s reputation has survived both the sentimentality of his friends and the slander of his enemies. He has earned beyond any doubt a high place on Olympus.

In recent years much has been made of the religious connotations of Lee’s career. The memorial window in the Lee Memorial Church at Lexington bears the inscription, “Robert E. Lee, Numbered With The Saints in Glory Everlasting.” As early as 1931 the United Daughters of the Confederacy went on record as desiring that “a fitting memorial to General Lee be placed in the Washington Cathedral.” At the 1946 meeting of this influential group, Mrs. L. M. Bashinsky was appointed head of the Proposed Lee Memorial Committee, which is conducting a vigorous campaign to raise $45,000 for the cathedral memorial by January 1, 1955.25

That Virginian writers have been instrumental in establishing Lee’s position, and that the citizens of Virginia feel as strongly about him as did their ancestors, there can likewise be no doubt. John Esten Cooke, Talbott Sweeney, Thomas Nelson Page, and Douglas Southall Freeman have provided their fellow Virginians, in the eighty years since Lee’s death, with accounts that have been much read and admired. These writers have all struck a central chord: in his ancestry, courage, humility, and simplicity, Lee represents the best the Old Dominion has produced. His chosen field, the military, has always commanded great respect in Virginia. In this field he was a genius—probably the greatest one the American nation has produced. On him descended the supreme task of defending the Confederacy, one which, in the light of the enemy’s strength, was foredoomed to failure. To this task Lee gave all his strength, and, when he failed, he devoted the remainder of his life to rebuilding his native state.

His life-pattern, then, assumes a classic simplicity and directness for Virginians. As must every reigning culture hero, he endorsed the values and institutions which meant most to the other members of the society. Look for the qualities of character which Virginia most venerates, and you will find them described in any biography of Lee.

The product of an agrarian civilization, Lee had a profound love of nature and the land. On his way to Lexington, he admitted that he would have preferred to be on a small farm; and his greatest joy there was to take long rides around the country on Traveller. The code by which Lee and his fellow planters lived was most marked by its directness and its simplicity. The God venerated was the anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, and Lee was humble before such a God all his life. He began and ended every day on his knees, believing literally in the Scriptures and God’s participation in human affairs.

Next to God came the family. To his wife and children Lee gave his fullest devotion, and he never tired of visiting and entertaining his many kinsmen. Virginians believe a man can be judged by his attitude towards women—no one ever displayed more gallantry in this regard than Lee. At parties and dinners he always preferred the company of women to men, and of daughters rather than mothers. Because he reflected the values of his culture so remarkably, Lee developed an admiration for the Virginia life that is the crowning facet of his personality as a hero-symbol. This emotional, intuitive tug he expressed when he returned home in 1840 from the Mississippi River:

I felt so elated when I found my self within the confines of the ancient Dominion that I nodded to all the trees as I passed, chatted with the drivers and stable boys, shook hands with the landlords and, in the fulness of my heart—don’t tell Mary—wanted to kiss all the pretty girls I met.26

Nor are these all the factors which explain Lee’s supremacy. With this same personality and devotion, he could hardly have reached his peak had Virginia stayed in the Union. His position would not have been so exalted—at least, not in the same manner as it now is—had he led his forces to victory. The bloody War between the States was the South’s baptism by fire, and by passing through it the region attained homogeneity, brotherhood, and cultural unity. Such is the compensation for a crushing defeat. Suffering is an integral part of greatness, on a personal or sectional plane, and Lee, in addition to his other characteristics, symbolizes this baptism by fire. Like the South, he entered the conflict prosperous and affluent, head of Virginia’s leading family. Like the South, he lost all power and possessions; he died a prisoner on parole.

Edwin A. Alderman, first president of the University of Virginia and lifelong student of the Virginia mind, saw clearly the implications of the Lee symbol. Speaking at Petersburg, Virginia, where Lee had tried in vain to stem the advance of Grant’s forces, Alderman said:

Some wonder why Virginia and the South give to General Lee a sort of intensity of love that they do not give even to Washington . . . Lee is a type and an embodiment of all the best of the state. Its triumphs, its defeats, its joys, its sufferings, its rebirths, its pride, its patience center in him. In that regnant figure of quiet strength may be discerned the complete drama of a great stock.27

Every hero has certain local shrines preserved and visited by his admirers; a number of Lee shrines exist in contemporary Virginia. Arlington and Stratford, ancestral homes of the Lees, head the list, which also includes the Lee House in Richmond (present home of the Virginia Historical Society), various battlefields, bridges, and structures connected with Lee’s military exploits, the Appomattox area, and the Lexington area. Lee Chapel, on the campus of Washington and Lee University, might almost be called the sanctuary of the Lee symbol; for in this simple edifice, which Lee was responsible for building, his body is interred, and his office and keepsakes are displayed. In 1883 Valentine’s recumbent statue of Lee was placed in the front of the chapel, so that wherever one sits he gazes at the serene marble face of the General asleep on the field of battle. On either side stands the most venerated emblem of the Lost Cause, the Confederate battle flag. Underneath the statue is the family crypt of the Lees. Whenever cadets from the adjoining Virginia Military Institute pass, they cease talking and silently salute the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The real sanctuary of Robert E. Lee is the hearts and minds of the people: and he has appealed to many types of Americans. For the average citizen, he is the greatest of soldiers—the General on a white charger who defended the Southland with the last ounce of his strength. For the historian, he is a pivotal figure of middle American history, whose decision to lead the Southern army and later to surrender that army and urge reconciliation, helped shape the national destiny. For the intellectual and philosopher, he symbolizes an unmachined, agrarian way of life, which trusted in a simplicity and an earthliness that has been forgotten in an age of technology. For the aristocrat he is the model planter, perfect gentleman, and American embodiment of noblesse oblige. For the poet and novelist Lee is the silent enigma, the romantic Cavalier who said little but did much. For the educator, Lee is the college president whose innovations gave new life to Southern education. For the churchman, Lee is the undeviating Christian, whose trust in his God never faltered. For the genealogist, he is the flower of a great American family, and the best proof that blood will tell. For the soldier, he was a military man who said that duty is the sublimest word in the English language.28 And for all of us who live in the twentieth century, he is a major figure in an age which enjoyed a type of security, fidelity, and compactness which we today do not know.

Every schoolboy knows the pronouncement of Light Horse Harry Lee about George Washington: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” For many Southerners, and most Virginians, the tribute no longer belongs to a Washington who made the most of victory, but to the son of Light Horse Harry Lee, who made the most of defeat.